Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Great Content Divide

There seems to be a great divide in the mentality of various game development companies today. Some developers believe that the ideal way to create a game is to restrict the amount of content that appears within the game in the name of creating an engrossing story that unfolds in a very particular way, and there are other developers that believe that the ideal way to create a game is to give you so many choices, so many options, and so much content, that you barely know what to do with yourself.

Sure, there are developers who fall somewhere in the middle of these two extremes, but my two most recent gaming experiences have been Alan Wake and Dragon Quest IX, and I thought it would be interesting to compare the two, strictly in terms of content, leaving graphic fidelity, music, and interface completely out of the discussion. Certainly, graphic fidelity, music, and interface are a part of the "experience" of the game, and are therefore
related to content, but that's not the "content" I'm talking about here-- I'm talking about the actual gameplay experience: The universe in which the game takes place, the story of the game, the replayability of the game, the length of the game, and so on.

Here are some quotes from developers that worked on the game Alan Wake, and my thoughts and interpretation of the quote after each:

"We wanted to make a character and we also wanted to make a story that would be interesting to hardcore gamers, but also people who normally wouldn't be playing an action game"
Note that they are emphasizing
their story that they wanted to make. This is what they set out to create from the beginning: A character and a story, with the goal of appealing to a broad range of consumers.

"We decided we wanted a natural storyteller as the main character, and that's where the idea of using a writer... and his writing's coming true, so he's a natural storyteller in the game"
Again, they're emphasizing story-- In fact, they wanted to put
so much emphasis on their story that they eventually decided to just make the lead character an author.

"We want a thriller to be more than just a story, so whether it's how we use the camera or how we pace the action, there's several layers of the thriller elements built straight into the gameplay, and we think that's important for the game."
Here they are, stuck on themselves even still: "how
we use the camera" or "how we pace the action". The developers of Alan Wake clearly believe, right here form their own mouths, that the way they use the camera and the way that they pace the action are important for the game. They believe that this makes it a "thriller".

"We need to go more linear, control the pacing, and tap into those emotions to get the player's pulse racing. We needed to be able to control the soundscape, we needed to control the environment, the weather, the music, and stuff like that."
After having initially announced the game as a "sandbox-style" game (also known as "open world", like Grand Theft Auto or The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion) they reconsidered this commitment during development of the game. How could they tell their
amazing story that everyone was going to love like that?

"When you have the player turning up to a love scene in a monster truck when they should be showing up in a Cadillac you know something's wrong."
Yes, "something is wrong" alright: The story isn't unfolding
exactly as you intended. A problem indeed.

All of these quotes demonstrate the developers desire to control the game
for the player. Everything is about them and their story that they wrote. This is only half of The Great Content Divide, however, and the evidence of the other half, also found within Alan Wake, is below:

"We are using television series as a model for storytelling"
There they go with the "storytelling" again, but let's focus on the first part now: What is "the television series model"? The television series model is to release content bit-by-bit. To quite literally
withhold content that you intend to create, for release at a later time. In other words, to deliberately create an incomplete product.

"From the very beginning, we have intended Alan Wake to go on beyond the first game, so this is the first step, in a way"
More evidence of this can be found here. These developers, believing that their "story" was going to be so appealing to "hardcore gamers, and to people who don't normally play games", that they had a vision of expanding the content of Alan Wake beyond just the "first" game. They are so wrapped up in this mentality that they are actually telling a
gaming website this, during an interview, before the game even releases. Also in this interview, (AGAIN: This interview takes place weeks before the game even releases), the developer confirms at least 2 DLC (Downloadable Content) episodes (which they expect you to pay 7$-10$ for on top of your initial $60 purchase) to get additional content, and also discuss the impending Alan Wake 2. They then go on to say this:

"We definitely want to make Alan Wake 2. We have the story mapped out. We know where it's taking us. As I said, season one will be conclusive but there'll be doors left open for a bigger story"

Now they're even referring to... the video game... Alan Wake... as "season one"? Is it just me or does this sound absurd? Not even the Heavy Rain guys had balls like this.

(Source 1) (Source 2)

The opposite side of The Great Content Divide
On the other hand, let's take a look at the mentality behind the developers of another new game, Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies. Again, I've compiled some quotes about developing this game, and my commentary will follow.

"[The 'story' is] not that long, in particular."
The developer is commenting on the "ideal length of an RPG", prodded by a popular "game journalist" website. This is very interesting to me, because it is only recently that games have been described in terms of
time when asked about their length. This isn't how it used to be many years ago: The "length" of a game was measured by the content, such as how many "levels" there were, or how many "quests" you could do. Nonetheless, he is prodded for an amount of "time", to which he responds, "40 hours [...] for no particular reason. It just sounds like a good number.", seemingly making a mockery of the time-to-length paradigm.

"With Dragon Quest VII it took about 100 hours to complete the game. What we focus on is not the time constraint but the amount of content we put in."
He comments further on the difference between the journalist's way of measuring the length of a game, by "time", to the way that he thinks of measuring the length of a game, by "content". He references the PlayStation  entry in the Dragon Quest series, which was Dragon Quest VII (Dragon Warrior VII here in America).

"For Dragon Quest IX one of the biggest things was being able to create your own character, and your party members too. The importance of it is that you can customize the face, the name, or something like that so the party members are really a reflection of you. It becomes more of your own experience. Particularly because of the undefined elements of the characters, we wanted it to become the player's story. "
Here, the developer is demonstrating the
polar opposite as their goal with Dragon Quest IX, from what we heard out of the Alan Wake developers. He wants it to "become the players story". He wants the characters and party members in the game to be "a reflection of you", to make it become "your own experience". He doesn't seem too interested in controlling how the camera acts, or how the weather behaves, or how deep the characters in the story are, and instead seems interested in leaving these details to the player to manipulate to their liking, so that the "story" of the game is custom tailored to their interests, created in the player's own head by their own imagination.

"You can vary that experience depending on what type of skill the character has and also sometimes you can build up special skills to increase damage that you do to the monsters."
Again, he is saying that "you" (
the player) can "vary the experience depending on [what you want]".

"Oblivion. The Elder Scorlls IV: Oblivion [has been an influence to me recently]. I like that a lot."
This quote comes from Yuji Horii, the creator of Dragon Quest, however in another interview the Producer of Dragon Quest IX, Ichimura-san, also mentions the original Diablo as another source of inspiration. What are the similarities between Diablo, Oblivion, and Dragon Quest IX? I'd say (on a base level, anyway) that freedom, customization, and the motivation to "collect" are the biggest similarities. It is also worth noting that none of these games are "episodic" in nature, like a TV series is. Sure, all three of them offer additional content in some form, but this is not episodic content. None of these games are meant to act as a television series, or a movie; they are meant (if compared to anything other than games) to act much more like a "Choose your own adventure" book-- meaning-- The content is all there, but, how you interact with it, and how the story unfolds, is entirely your choice.

"I believe there is some type of universal message [throughout all Dragon Quest games], like love for humanity, or the importance of keeping on trying. But I don’t really like to come out and push that, or shove it down anyone’s throat."
Here, Horii-san was being pushed by the interviewer to connect all the different Dragon Warrior titles via a common theme or overarching grand story of some sort. Mr. Horii was not interested in doing this, as each title is always developed completely independently from the others as finished products, and do not connect to one-another. This of course means that the story is never open-ended, left open with a sequel in mind, or with additional content pre-planned for the "next installment" in the "franchise". He concludes that he doesn't want to push a message or story down anyone's throats.

"With DS you don’t have to be stuck in front of the TV, you might be laying down… it’s very flexible in the time you can spend playing, and how you can play… so I believe it is fitting to this day and age. "
This is not as much about game content as it is just the mentality of the developers and their desire to give people playing the game as much freedom as possible. I think that the degree of physical freedom provided by a handheld console, as well as the intimacy of having your own speakers and your own screen held within your fingertips, are important factors with how the player absorbs the content, and clearly so does Horii-san.

"When you purchase a game for a few thousand yen (3000 yen = $34), you want to have the value of the game"
Interesting that a game developer is speaking in terms of the value provided to the player in terms of dollars and cents (or Yen in this case). You do not see this often. Interesting... this sounds familar! I believe i
just wrote an article with a section on exactly this type of thing (in reference to whether or not a console was "affordable", and differentiating "price" from "value".)

"For kids you really want to have a game they can play for a long time. For adults, maybe they will play for six hours and if the gameplay is good maybe they'll be happy and want to play longer. But for kids, they might only get a couple of games a year and I would like them to continue to be playing."
It seems as though he is saying here that he aspires to do the unthinkable: Pack
so much content and so much freedom to control the game in your own way and customize the game to your interests that you could potentially play it for the better part of a year! Sounds like someone spent as much time playing Oblivion as I did ;)

It is also interesting to note that the developers of Dragon Quest IX don't speak in terms of other media. They don't cite television or movies as direct inspirations for the type of gameplay they want to create.

(Source 1) (Source 2) (Source 3) (Source 4)

Old and new schools of thought
A comparison of the two developers reveals some stark differences in history and experience:

Quick comparison

  • Making games since: 1996
  • First console: Xbox/Playstation 2
  • Total number of platforms developed for: 5
  • Games of note: Max Payne(s), Alan Wake

  • Making games since: 1986
  • First console: Nintendo Famicom (NES)
  • Total number of platforms developed for: 20+
  • Games of note: Final Fantasy(s), Dragon Quest(s), Star Ocean(s), Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana, Actraiser(s), and many more

I think it is interesting to question where this difference in game design philosophy originates. It could very well just be a personal preference with no outside influence I suppose, but that's not very interesting. Let's consider that some of the factors mentioned in this comparison may have something to do with it.

It's interesting to note that Remedy's developers started making games 10 years after Square/Enix. Remedy likely grew up playing Square and/or Enix games in their youths, so why take such a drastically different path of development? Perhaps, after playing games that encouraged freedom and imagination (as many of Square and Enix's games did in the 80's and 90's) they felt as though they could create a "better" game using their amazing imaginations for us? It's not clear, but there seems to be a definite difference between many gamers who began in the late 80s and early 90s (we'll call them the NES generation) and the gamers who began in the late 90s and early 00s (we'll call them the PlayStation generation, which coincidentally has a nice ring to it).

I think the facts in the table above speak volumes about experience with creating popular games in itself, and I won't elaborate any more on the differences between the NES and PlayStation generations and their preferences in regards to gameplay mechanics and content delivery. This has been done to death by a friend of 8bitdream, Sean Malstrom, and I don't think I can achieve much more on this subject that he hasn't already written veritable novels about. Nonetheless, this difference in mentality is important when understanding the difference in design philosophies when comparing Yuji Horii and the old Dragon Quest team from Enix, with Remedy and the Alan Wake team.

Mine is better than yours 
So which type of game is better? That's not what this post is about, and I don't intend to argue that either is "better" than the other. This post is about demonstrating the divide between games that favor linearity and story progression to games that favor freedom and imagination. It seems to me that I would be a hypocrite if I said that one was "better" than the other, since I personally prefer games that allow me, as the player, to choose what I want from the game. So with that, I allow you, the reader, to choose which you like better from this post :D Certainly, this post is slanted toward freedom and imagination because that is my preference, but there are many gamers who enjoy linearity and story-driven narrative.

A happy medium
Neither of these games, so far, are selling particularly well in America (where they have similar brand power, which is to say, "not much"). This is interesting to me: Advertising, console exclusivity, and many other factors play a role in sales, but ultimately it comes down to content, so I wonder if there is some sort of middle-ground between these two extremes that Americans prefer in regard to "amount of content". More content = more value, but there is certainly something to be said about a game like Dragon Quest IX that has so much content it can almost feel overwhelming at times even for a seasoned veteran of the series like myself.

My experience with these two games
"I am (barely) A. Wake": I was looking for a Resident Evil 4 experience from Alan Wake and did not get it. The mechanics of the flashlight and the guns and the batteries were all cool, and the visual effects were very impressive, but the storyline and cutscenes took over far too often, and I ended up feeling as though I was just on a quick mission to run from cutscene to cutscene. The little bit of auxiliary content, such as the faux-Twilight-Zone videos on screens inside of buildings were fun, but the "manuscript pages" were boring and I lost interest after reading only the first two. I gave up on this game rather quickly, as I realized it was nothing more than "point flashlight, shoot two times, watch another cutscene, lather, rinse, repeat". There was literally nothing else to do aside from collect coffee thermoses with no tangible reward (huh?) and crappy manuscript pages. I quit the game after playing through the first 4 chapters, and ended up severely disappointed with my purchase. There was so little to do in this game, so little to actually experience in my opinion, that I practically fell asleep.

Dragon Quest(s) IX: I was looking for a Dragon Quest III experience from IX, and I got even more than I bargained for. There is so much customization and freedom in the game it can seem overwhelming. The cutesy-4poo and campy style of the cutscenes and scripted characters might be a turn-off for some gamers, but I find it all very charming. The alchemy pot brings a whole new world of discoveries, collecting, and item customizing, and the random treasure maps you can find all around the world add dozens (hundreds?) of new dungeons to the game as you progress. Treasure map dungeons are not part of the "story", they're completely separate and totally optional-- It's just more content for you if you decide to consume it. There are 9 classes/jobs for your characters to train under that I've seen so far, and I expect that there are at least 3 more coming up. I have completed a dozen side-quests and have unlocked a dozen more, and every town I visit is bustling with NPCs that want to give me even more! I am literally avoiding taking on new quests right now. There is so much to do in this game, it can feel overwhelming at times. I'm going to my job tired every day now, because I can't stop myself from staying up past my bedtime to "do just one more thing". 

Getting ahead of yourself
The two experiences, as I've said here, were vastly different for me. The real bummer here, for the Alan Wake team, is that even my friends who prefer linear, story-driven narrative-type games also burned out on Alan Wake very quickly because of the severe lack of content presented within. How will Remedy justify creating and releasing their planned DLC packs now? How will they ever get the investor capital to create the already-planned Alan Wake 2? Perhaps Remedy should learn to walk before they try to run: If they'd focused harder on putting all of their ideas for content into the single game (remember? "season one"?), and then considered DLC and a sequel later, they may not have been stuck in this position.

Is content king? Finding the middle-ground
What games do you think would make a good comparison to these two, but sit in the middle-ground in terms of content? Games that are essentially story-driven, but not necessarily "ruled" by the storyline? Games that performed well in America, had little brand power, and had a popular console upon which they were published? I thought of only a couple, but instead of writing about those I thought it would be fun to see if any 8bitdreamers had any in mind. Perhaps I can write a follow-up post at some point using some of your ideas and points?


  1. Hello very nice bro, I see you and I have the same hunger for great games, Dragon Quest IX is truly mind blowing. I still dont Understand how they fit that game on the DS ??

    you made me laugh with the side quest's im going through the same thing right now LOL!! i just hit 100 hours, Truly a work of art, Yuji Horii is....WOW just wow nice read ^___^

  2. Nice read, and I'd like to respond to it in a better way at some point, but I have to ask if we have any evidence that DQIX is under-performing in NA? As far as I know no numbers have been released. It's a reasonable conclusion to reach, to be sure, but I don't think we have anything concrete to go on at this point.

  3. When I read this, the first thing I thought of as an in-between game (and this was before I read where you asked for examples) was Ogre Battle 64. It has a ton of content and you have a lot of control, but it's still within a strong story framework (even with multiple endings). You can do some missions in different order and there are a couple branches where you have to choose one sequence or another, but ultimately you're advancing an over-arching story that exists outside of your own character and experience. Dunno if that's exactly what you were thinking of (it's 3 AM, my comprehension may be off), but that's what popped into my head.

    To comment on your post in general, I find myself enjoying both kinds of games. I don't mind a linear experience, as long as the story's actually interesting and I'm having fun playing it. I enjoy a good story unfolding in, say, a book or a movie, and it's the same with video games. But I probably spend more time in games where you have much more control over your experience and have a lot of freedom. I clocked a few hundred hours in Pokemon Diamond just running around trying to catch more Pokemon and level the ones I had, for no real reason other than that I could.

    So anyway, nice post, I enjoyed reading it.

  4. Alan Wake was awesome, and I think Remedy did a good job with it. Sometimes it's nice to have a game like Alan Wake where you don't have to worry with so much stuff and just play through the story.

    But with a game with a lot of content, I don't know, it's nice but eventually you'll just burn out.

  5. Very good article. I myself, enjoy games that give you lots of choices and content. In fact, I think that's how arcade games first started out (even though they themselves are linear compared to games like Dragon Quest IX), they gave you choices in how you acted, and they were hardly scripted.

    So, providing lots of content is one way to head to the old school values that are getting gamers back and are also what made gaming great in the first place.

  6. I think people's views on the Playstation Generation are often distorted from what was really popular at the time.

    Sure, Final Fantasy and Metal Gear Solid had a lot of fans, but most of the people I knew were playing soccer games (FIFA, Pro Evo), Need for Speed, Gran Turismo, Tekken, Tony Hawk's, DDR.
    The Playstation 2 suffers from that too. I bet there were more people playing Need For Speed Underground than Final Fantasy X back in the day

    Maybe it's the gaming media fault, they seem to focus a lot on these story-driven games

    Anyway, nice post, I'm playing DQIX too, and I'm loving it =)

  7. I can't form a real opinion on either game, since I've had neither time nor money to play them, but your analysis is pretty consistent with that of other gamers I know.

    I found myself nodding like a bobble head doll in an earthquake when I got to your observation on American preference for games that are somewhere between linear and completely customizable. Looking at the games I play over and over again, I notice a bit of a balance: some elements are linear but you can really make your own experience with other elements.

    Excellent article. =3

  8. GREAT article! Even though I don't like traditional, turn-based RPGs, the amount of content that you've talked about in DQ9 is incredible. There are DOZENS of completely extra treasure dungeons? That's remarkable, even after knowing about all of the downloadable quests and content in the game.

    One slightly-less-fitting example that comes to mind illustrating this point is the comparison between Star Fox 64 and Star Fox Assault. The former has around 15 stages, and each play-through you go through 7 of those depending on your performance in each stage. There is an over-arching story, and each planet has its own scenario with plenty of dialog, but the game feels like your own experience each time you go through. Star Fox Assault, however, is locked in a rigid "Mission" structure (of which there are ten), and it completely removes that feeling of your own personal journey.

    I'm sure some will disagree, but I thought it was worth mentioning.

  9. I have an admittedly minor point to make here: rather than comparing companies, its comparing development teams. I assure you all of Square Enix is not the same as the Dragon Quest team for example. A development teams philosophy is not necessarily the entire companies philosophy.

    Certain online games go so far as to take the entire server down and alter the game if an unintended method is used to defeat certain very strong enemies (read: not an exploit, simply not the way the dev team wanted). This has happened more than once in Final Fantasy XI online (a Square Enix game no less), and I believe Everquest (sony).

  10. Hmm...I just ran into this site by accident, but it seems I might have to come back more often.

    I like the research of the games and the companies you reacted to.

    I have a couple of things to add though. While nonlinear games have been moving at more of a prgressive rate, sometimes I would rather see it as a linear game. The two that stick out to me the most are No More Heroes and Sonic Unleashed.

    No More Heroes, was a fascinating game for the wii and still one of my favorites. However, the nonlinear scenes got old fast and I just wanted to play the game mission to mission, rather than cut yards and sell coconuts.

    I actually wanted to talk more about Sonic Unleashed with the comparison of content. This game definately had too much content. The developers were to involved with pleasing their "younger fans," that they forgot about their huge collection of fans. This game would have been perfect as a stand alone sonic game, but they decided to put the werehog mode. They also have mundane missions(which seems to be Sega's new thing) and idiotic fetch quests for some random achievements. I still play this game, only to replay the sonic levels from time to time, but I wish they would have cut back on the content, and focused more on just sonic running ridiculously fast through the levels. I could say more, however this was just a little bit of the opposite side, as I too love nonlinear games, but favor some good linear ones.